The Background to Challoner, by Archbishop David James Mathew

detail of an 18th century painting of Bishop Richard Challoner, artist unknownThe period during which the Catholic community in England was under the rule of vicars apostolic lasted rather more than a century and a half and is a very well marked phase. It coincides in general with the reigns of the Hanoverians and has certain characteristics which differentiate it from the periods which precede or follow it. As far as ecclesiastical administration is concerned England and Wales were divided into four vicariates each ruled by a vicar apostolic and known respectively as the London, Midland, Northern and Western districts. These were set up by Pope Innocent XI in 1688 and their number and boundaries remained unchanged until the re-organisation carried through by the Congregation of Propaganda Fide on the instructions of Pope Gregory XVI in 1840.

It was a period when the political influence of Catholics was at its lowest ebb for the Test Act excluded them from both Houses of Parliament and from commissioned rank in the Armed Forces. The universities were closed to them. These matters changed after the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, and the doubling of the numbers of the apostolic vicariates in 1840 was followed by the erection of the present Hierarchy just ten years later. But the note of the period of the vicars apostolic was a slow, unostentatious and determined attachment to the Catholic Faith on the part of a community, the great majority of which had held for centuries to the Old Religion.

After the beginning of the eighteenth century the hopes of a Jacobite restoration were in fact faint. As the years went by the oppressed Catholics saw themselves increasingly as the members of a permanent political opposition without prospect of power and only a faintly developing hope of alleviation. It was a period marked by the fatigue that follows on the cessation of overt persecution. It was a long, grey, changeless time. The century between the accession of George I. and the battle of Waterloo saw fewer changes in the Catholic community in England than any other period of equal length.

Nevertheless these generations of the vicars apostolic were marked by a slow ebb which changed after the slack water of the third quarter of the eighteenth century to the gradual beginning of the flood. This change in emphasis, the gradual contraction of the Catholic body giving place to the beginnings of increase, divides the period into two halves. The spirit of resolution which marked the first and more dour portion was embodied in Richard Challoner, Bishop of Debra in partibus infidelium and Vicar Apostolic of the London district, while all the world of new hope found expression in his sterling colleague, John Milner, Bishop of Castabala.

Dr. Milner was born in 1752, was consecrated as Vicar Apostolic of the Midland district in 1803 and died in 1826. To his time belonged the period of development, the return of the colleges from France, the foundation of Ushaw and Old Hall, the work of the French priests driven to England by the Revolution. In his own region there had grown up the college at Oscott, which was perhaps the greatest domestic achievement of the clergy of the old vicariates. Dr. Milner was the man who led the way to those new industrial townships in which there began to grow the great new Catholic masses with their unskilled labour. When the new vicar apostolic established himself at Wolverhampton, he came as the herald of a new age. There was in some ways a foretaste of Manning in him; he had a sympathy with the poor and with Ireland. He lived to see the first development of those waves of Irish immigration which gave such fresh vitality to the Church in England. He paved the way for Bishop Ullathorne, who was perhaps the greatest of the vicars apostolic; he formed that fine clergy of the Midland vicariate of whom Provost Weedall proved so attractive a leader. Bishop Milner himself in fact embodied that oaken resolution and that strong self-confidence which marked the Catholic priests of penal times.

The situation of Dr. Challoner was very different. His life was very long, characterised by a deep patience, lit by charity and a constant faith which in a fashion took the place of hope. He was a true southerner, born at Lewes, brought up at Firle in Sussex and Warkworth in Northamptonshire, returning after his studies and teaching at Douay to the London district. He came from the town middle class, the son of a wine cooper, but all his memories were bound up with those houses of the Catholic squirearchy which did so much to keep alive the ancient faith. The political temper of his background was a platonic Jacobitism, too common sense to be nostalgic. He seems, and wisely, never to have been hopeful of the return of the de jure king. He was twenty four years old and overseas at the time of the ’15 and co-adjutor of the London district at the time of the ’45; his friends seem to have taken no active part in either of these ventures to restore the Stuart line. He was singularly remote from politics. Catholics were excluded from all office. They had their enemies among politicians, it can hardly be said that they had friends. In all his forty years as a bishop in London, perhaps Lord Mansfield was the only public figure who could be regarded as a friend to Bishop Challoner’s persecuted flock.

He and his brethren would inculcate steadfastness, determination, loyalty. The priest-tutor would endeavour to instill in generation after generation the necessity to remain faithful, to marry within the Catholic flock, above all to resist the pressure of the times. To those unfamiliar with the circumstances of the period it may seem that Bishop Challoner and his colleagues concentrated too great an interest upon the Catholic squirearchy. Yet in the congregations in the south of England outside London it was the Catholicism of the squire and that alone which had hitherto kept the mass centres in being.

The priest and the lay patron stood in a patriarchal relationship towards the flock. The young Richard Challoner in the house-keeper’s room at Firle would from his early years be in no doubt of the ascendancy of these two authorities. At Michelgrove, not far from Arundel, there lived another Catholic gentleman. Sir John Shelley, Bart., who was married to a sister of Sir John Gage of Firle. Among the archives of the Franciscans there is preserved a letter written in 1701 relating to Father Angelus Fortescue, the chaplain at Michelgrove. It must be explained that Father Fortescue had been the subject of an attack. “And now,” wrote Sir John Shelley, “to convince the whole world of the good opinion I and my family have of Mr. Fortescue*s solid virtue towards God, and sincerity towards us. I desire you (the Franciscan Chapter) would provide me with another Gentleman of the same coat, who may be fit to undertake the government of my son.”

This letter is worth pondering for it indicates some of the trials and difficulties which beset the life of the clergy in the south of England. In the north the position was very different; throughout Lancashire and Durham and in parts of Yorkshire and Northumberland there were wide areas in which the Faith was maintained by yeoman farmers. There were relatively large congregations, a steady flow of priests from such districts as the Fylde, and an absence of rich, dominant Catholic families. It was only in southern England that one found the constricting atmosphere of patronage.

“Another Gentleman of the same coat fit to undertake the government of my son.” We are entering the classic period of baronetage and, perhaps, the grandiloquence of the expression recalls the world of Queen’s Crawley. Still, here was an element which was irksome in its own fashion, a sense of dependence in many matters upon the master of the house. This was in fact due to the deep respect which the landowning class exacted throughout England. A squire, and still more a peer possessed of landed wealth, was accepted as possessing a status which could not be impaired. Nothing save impoverishment could possibly degrade him.

Under these circumstances the whole life of the congregation turned on the squire. An opinion recorded among the Eyre manuscripts at Ushaw and given in 1759 by James Booth, the well-known Catholic conveyancer, throws a sharp light on this point of prestige. The opinion in question was elicited by a petition that Sir Thomas Haggerston, Bart., should be declared a recusant convict. The relevant passage is contained in the following sentence. “I suppose the country in general will not be pleased to see an attempt of this kind begun upon a Roman Catholic Gent., because it tends to drive him off from his Mansion House, and his Residence at Home, which is always useful to a country.”

This high prestige in the old oligarchic England carried with it two consequences. On the one hand it meant that the young landowner who conformed to the Established Church was at once welcomed either to his seat in the House of Lords if he were a peer or to a parliamentary borough if his wealth and standing warranted this favour. There was therefore a constant pull; the young man naturally anxious to get out among his equals and restrained perhaps by religious faith or by a serious-minded sense of duty or by a nice understanding of the point of honour. To deal with all the strains that this recurring situation brought about required all the patience and forbearance which were so outstanding in the character of Richard Challoner.

The attitude of the squire towards his priest had a proprietary quality; it was compounded of reverence diluted by patronage. It was always borne in upon him that his equals and neighbours did not consider his priest to be a person of any consequence. Further, Macaulay’s picture of the Catholic squire as remote and poor was not true of the south of England. On the contrary the Catholic landowners were for the most part moderately rich and tending to grow richer. Their heiresses married within their own community. It was often within a considerable household, with steward’s room and housekeeper’s room, that the priest would find himself embedded.

Many of the points just made are illustrated in a letter written by Dr. Challoner not long after his consecration to one of the leading Catholics, the tenth Lord Teynham. “I should,” wrote the bishop, “be highly ungrateful if I did not upon all occasions acknowledge the great favours I have received from your Lordship and your worthy Lady: for which I shall be ever obliged to pray for you both, not being able to make you any better return, for your kindnesses. I have here sent some few books to employ a part of your leisure hours. The two volumes of the Memoirs, in which you will find many rare examples of Christian piety and fortitude will encourage your Lordship (whom divine providence seems to have designed for the chief support of Religion in Kent) to follow with a constancy worthy of a Christian nobleman the happy and glorious path of virtue and religion, in spite of all opposition of the world, the flesh and the Devil. The care your Lordship takes to avoid idleness, which is the mother of all vice, by employing yourself in your Farm is very edifying. I wish all noblemen in this would follow your example.”

This was one aspect of the situation, but the other and more painful matter was the spiritual future of the Catholic dependents whose religious training and Mass facilities would vanish when the country house chapels were no longer kept up. Here again Bishop Challoner was faced by difficulties which were unknown to the strong Catholic congregations of the self-reliant North. The Catholic farming stocks in the parish of Sefton in Lancashire were sufficiently numerous to provide for their own religious services when the first Earl of Sefton conformed to the Established Church. It was a very different matter in the south of England and the parish which could, like West Grinstead, survive the exile of its Catholic squire was very rare. Throughout the seventeenth and for a great part of the eighteenth century the most constant of the rural centres in the Home Counties was Cowdray House, the seat of the Viscounts Montagu. When Bishop Challoner first visited this place in 1741 the congregation of one hundred and fifty were all in the employment of the proprietor. When Cowdray passed out of Catholic hands what became of these people?

This opens a question of very great interest and one which has not as yet received even the most cursory study. What was the nature of the Catholic rural grouping in the eighteenth century and how did its members keep their religion? In the library at Oscott College there is preserved a baptismal and marriage register from the old private chapel of the Giffard family at Chillington. It covers only the later years of the reign of George I. Here with a detail unusual in such volumes we can trace for a brief period each tenant and indoor and outdoor servant. Occasionally some figure, a butler for instance, can be followed coming from one of the Shropshire houses eastwards into Staffordshire, changing employment. If more registers and, above all, Catholic wills could be analysed we might in time begin to build up a picture.

London was, perhaps, a greater clearing station than one would envisage. Old Norfolk House and the town dwellings of Catholic peers generally would be a meeting place and exchange for Catholics in service from all over England, the groom of the chambers, the coachmen, the footmen. If only the London registers were more detailed the scene could gradually be reconstructed. It is, however, rare to find the occupation and address provided of the godparents at baptisms and the witnesses to marriages. Could we obtain further data we would have the answer to the question what became of the Faith of the children in the rural units.

The point here raised must have proved one of Bishop Challoner’s great pre-occupations. How could he ensure the Catholic teaching to a community so small and scattered. It may be suggested that one of the elements which tended to preserve the Catholic Faith was the drift into the towns. Throughout the eighteenth century the Catholic town populations were growing as the sanctuary lights in the countryside went out one by one. The link between inns patronised by Catholics and sometimes under Catholic management and the servants’ quarters of big town houses is one that has not been examined. Many Catholics must have drifted in as potboys and ostlers, and the strong Irish amalgam in London must have helped to preserve their Faith. This is another subject that has never been worked over, the development of the Irish population in London which we can see in its strength in that background in Saint Giles from which Mother Margaret Hallahan sprang.

The seventeenth century settlers in Ireland would bring back from that country their masters of the horse, their valets and grooms. Lord Conway on his way back from County Cork travelled with from twelve to twenty four Irish servants. It was very rare to find any proselytizing zeal in these settlers; their servants would tend to swell the Catholic population in London.

In view of the small extent of the capital in Bishop Challoner’ s time and the distances that men were accustomed to cover on foot the religious facilities were less inadequate than would appear at first sight. There were well-known centres at which priests could be found. Thus Franciscans were lodging at a house in Little Wild Street near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, at Mr. Cabry’s a fan-maker at the sign of the Golden Fan over against Gray’s Inn Gate in Holborn and at Mr. Wright’s, the goldsmith’s at the sign of the Golden Cup in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.

One gains the impression that in London, as opposed to the Home Counties, Catholicism was fairly familiar among the poor. The priests and Dr. Challoner himself had in these respects an advantage over the well-established Georgian incumbents. Their lack of status and the unconcern with which they were regarded by the Hanoverian rich enabled them to move simply and easily among those whom the Whig century had also passed by. Certain extracts from a rough note of converts received into the Church by Father Bruno Cantrill will confirm this impression.

“Michael Cadon, Henry Dubery,” so the list runs, “a poor washer woman and another married woman whose names I forgot to put down, a seaman’s wife and sister, another old woman, Wagenors maide, Mr. Hide half-pay officer and his wife, a Butcher’s wife in Blomsbery, also a maid of Mr. Dewsbury, undertaker.”

At the same time, as the century advanced, there was the gradual formation not so much of a Catholic middle class as of the beginnings of a small Catholic element in commercial and clerical employment. Debarred from official life by the Test Act, there had always been Catholics in the wine trade and among the scriveners and goldsmiths and private bankers. There were eminent conveyancers of the Old Religion throughout this period. In all these firms the subordinates and apprentices were often Catholics so that there was a chance for the boy with book learning and no fortune to make his way.

As the long years of Bishop Challoner’s episcopate drew on, for he was consecrated in 1741 and survived until 1781, a change developed in the great district that was subject to his administration. Under one aspect it was merely saddening. The houses of the southern squires fell one by one. Lord Teynham’s son conformed to the Established Church, so did Lord Montagu. The young man entrusted to “Mr. Fortescue’s government” seceded also. When Challoner came back from overseas both Firle Place and Michelgrove had been lost to the Catholic Faith. Sir William Gage sat for the borough of Seaford and his cousin Sir John Shelley for that of Arundel. These were the rewards to which they had come naturally once they had rallied to the Hanoverian cause and taken the sacrament in the Church of England.

There was moreover no kindness for Catholics in these houses; that Liberal sentiment which would favour Emancipation was not yet stirring. Dr. Challoner would have to ride past the closed gates of Firle Place. Later Sir John changed his constituency and sat for the bishop’s birth-place, Lewes.

The years after the failure of Prince Charles Edward’s attempt were, perhaps, especially dispiriting. The fact of the Jacobite Rising seemed to put off indefinitely all hope of relief. It was cold comfort to note the fashion in which conveyancers would endeavour to draw for their clients such consolation as might be afforded by a benign interpretation of penal statutes. There was a constant effort to avoid the status of a popish recusant convict. Thus an opinion given in regard to a trust executed on behalf of Miss Walmeslcy of Dunkenhalgh, who was married first to Lord Petre and then to Lord Stourton, draws attention to the fact that the late Lord Petre was a reputed papist and that the guardians of his young son were “Sir Edward Southcott and John Caryll reputed papists but neither a popish recusant convict.” Similarly the Catholic conveyancers themselves set out the doctrine that Protestantism could be presumed to be the religion of all citizens until this was proved to the contrary. “Every man” we are told in an opinion of Mr. Wilbraham given in 1759 and contained in the Eyre manuscripts at Ushaw, “in this country is prima facie presumed to profess the Religion established by Law till the contrary appears…. Religion is not presumed to be a matter of chance but of choice upon deliberate judgment and I do not know that a man is obliged to declare that choice till twenty one, or at least till he arrives at the age of eighteen years and six months which is the time given him to conform if he be educated in the Popish Religion.” There is a sense of discouragement overhanging these words. It cannot have assisted the morale of the young squire thus to endeavour to circumvent the onerous law. It was of course the whole property-holding class that was affected. Thus the Tucker case discussed in 1752 by Messrs. Booth and Maire turned on an annuity of five pounds a year left to each of four children. All were subject to the ravages of the double land tax.

There was therefore an atmosphere of gloom which was not heightened by the general situation of the Church in Europe. Once the pontificate of Benedict XIV, which lasted from 1740 until 1758, was concluded, the difficulties between the Catholic States and the Papacy grew more acute. Regalian theories came into fashion and the governing classes in Catholic countries ceased to offer that support to the Church which had been the custom in the generation of Bossuet. Challoner’s exact contemporary Lord Chesterfield knew many polite Catholics, but not too many believers. Sacramental life was weakening among the richer classes in France, Spain and Italy. The ambassadors who came to London from those countries afforded no great encouragement to Dr. Challoner. Above all the constant and eventually successful effort to induce the Holy See to suppress the Society of Jesus had a weakening effect on the whole Catholic system.

At the same time as the years passed the Catholic position in London became little by little more established. The figure of twenty thousand Catholics, which is given in the returns of the vicariate in 1746 and is said to have remained constant since the death of Queen Anne, began to increase. Thus at the time of the Gordon Riots in 1780 there were already four thousand Catholics, mostly immigrants from Ireland, in the congregation of the Virginia Street chapel in Wapping. There were already signs of that strong substratum of Catholic life which would mark London in the first years of the nineteenth century.

Douay College was throughout this period a great link between priests and laymen. Catholic studies were marked by the work of Alban Butler, the author of The Lives of the Saints, who came back to England from Douay in 1746. Firm friendships would develop between the priests and the new business men like Mr. Mawhood of Finchley and Mr. Langdale the distiller. These two represented that type of substantial layman who would increasingly replace the squires. In this connection it is worth examining the career of Vincent Eyre of Worksop, whose case book of opinions has been quoted. He was born at Glossop in Derbyshire about 1745 and first went to school at Ince in 1755, passing five years later to Douay, where he remained until 1764. In that year he was accepted as a pupil in the office of Mr. Tomkinson, an attorney in Manchester, coming three years later to London, where he studied in the chambers of Messrs. Booth and Maire, the eminent Catholic conveyancers. This was, perhaps, a typical example of the fashion in which the careers of the new middle class of Dr. Challoner’s London would be built up. Later Mr. Eyre became assistant to Mr. George Wilmot of Lincoln’s Inn and succeeded him in the management of the Duke of Norfolk’s interests. In 1776 he married a Miss Parker of Prescot and returned again to the North as manager of the Norfolk estates, including extensive house property, in Sheffield and at Worksop. He died in the exercise of that charge in 1801. Slowly there was coming into being that Catholic community which the nineteenth century knew.

With self-spending generous charity and a very robust and determined prudence the Venerable Bishop Challoner gave guidance to the flock committed to him. His writings carried forward the solid sound tradition which seventeenth century English Catholicism had bequeathed to a less dignified and exacting generation. He had constant recollectness, a feeling for the simple homily and, above all, what was needed in those hard times, a deep compassion.